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Strategies to Save

Slash Your Grocery Budget, Even in High-Cost Areas

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I live in one of the most expensive areas in the country, about thirty minutes outside of Manhattan. My rent for my 800 sq ft apartment is nearly $2,000 a month, and all of those high costs extend to other expenses, like groceries.

Now, groceries are undoubtedly more expensive in the city and they are likely more expensive in other high cost areas, like San Francisco. However, we are still dealing with high numbers, about double to triple the cost of food in my home state of Louisiana.

Last year, I was spending $600+ a month on feeding two people. I decided that for 2015, my New Year’s resolution was to get these costs down on my family’s grocery budget. I knew I could do it if I got creative. So far, I’ve only been spending $50 a week on groceries. It’s not easy, but it’s doable with a few adjustments.

Readjust Your Expectations

Look, I want to be the lady in Whole Foods just as much as the rest of you. Everything is neat and organized. It’s bright, happy, and clean. However, I had to readjust my expectations if I wanted to cut my budget.

I currently shop at a little grocery store in the next town over. The food is fine and fresh. It’s just usually a mess most of the time. There are boxes on the floor that you have to step over because they are unpacking groceries at all times. Sometimes they don’t have everything on my list.

It’s not Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but it’s important to acknowledge that some stores are cheaper, and usually they aren’t shiny and new.

Organize Shopping Lists

Order your shopping list by category. Just to give an example, it should look something like this:

Produce

  • Kale
  • Green Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Bananas

Dairy:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Eggs

Meat/Seafood:

  • Chicken
  • Tilapia

Pantry:

  • Pasta
  • Flour
  • Black Beans
  • Corn

Miscellaneous:

  • Ziplock Bags

When you do this and put your groceries under each category, you are less likely to purchase things that aren’t on your list. You just go to that section, buy what’s on your list, and move on. Your sections might look different than mine because maybe your butter and milk are on opposite sides of the store, so it’s up to you to categorize it by your store’s layout.

Just as an example, I don’t typically buy frozen, packaged items and because of that, I’m not even going to walk down the frozen food aisle and be tempted to buy ice cream.

Reduce Meat

When you live in a high cost, urban area, meat is going to be really expensive. I’m not saying you have to be 100% vegetarian, but meals like rice and beans are far cheaper than steak and asparagus.

I take the approach of sprinkling meat in my food. So, instead of making two chicken breasts for dinner, I might cut up just one and put it in a casserole. Just because we want meat doesn’t mean we have to be excessive about it. Similarly, instead of cutting up a nice chunk of beef for a soup, I might just take a few strips of bacon, cut them up and sprinkle it in the soup instead.

I love steak and potatoes more than any other meal, but I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the vegetarian meals I’ve been making. With the right spices, you can’t really tell the difference. If you’re the type who believes it isn’t a meal without meat, I would just encourage you to try one meal a week in the form of a casserole or soup. It’s hard to change habits, but if you need to cut your grocery budget and you live in a high cost area, this is one of the easiest ways to do it.

Cut Out the Packaged Food

The mashed potatoes that you make in the package are great and save a lot of time, but making real mashed potatoes is cheaper (and tastes better anyway).

When food is packaged, it’s more expensive especially in higher cost areas. It’s also typically not that great for you. I’ve gone back to basics, back to cutting up broccoli instead of getting it in a steamable bag. I always argued that my time was valuable and so these extra costs were worth it. The reality is that at $600 and sometimes $700 a month for groceries, it wasn’t worth it at all.

Don’t Focus on Coupons

I think it’s important to mention that I rarely cut coupons. Coupons are usually for the packaged items mentioned above. Occasionally you can find ones for good products and if so, by all means use them. I personally don’t want buy one get one free Oreos because I’ll eat them all in one sitting. The real way to save money isn’t with coupons and 40 free packs of Tic Tacs. It’s by making meals that are healthy, basic, and simple.

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College Students and Recent Grads, Pay Down My Debt

How to Handle Student Loans in 4 Easy Steps

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When I was 18, I was so excited to start college. I carefully packed my clothes into a few different suitcases. I bought a mini fridge. I made sure I had a couple sets of extra long sheets. I contacted my roommate ahead of time. We found out we were in a really unique loft room in an all-girls dorm. It looked so cool, and I was really, really excited.

I was a complete and utter nerd in high school, and it paid off. I received a full-tuition scholarship to Tulane, in New Orleans. All my parents had to do was write a check for $5,000 or so, which covered room and board for the semester. Comparatively, a student who lives in the dorm at Tulane without a tuition scholarship will pay almost $50,000 a year for the privilege today. My parents were thrilled, and they wrote the check right when we arrived on campus and did orientation. 

Of course, a few hours later, my life changed forever.

Move in day at Tulane in 2005 was also the same day the city began evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. I was buying my first semester books in the bookstore with my dad when an announcement came over the loudspeaker. It was time for everyone to get out – really out. As in, leave the city.

Because I am from just outside of New Orleans, having my college plans messed up was actually the least of my family’s worries. A few days later, I found myself in a hotel room just outside of Baton Rouge. My childhood home had 8 feet of water. Tulane closed for the semester. But, most importantly, my parents’ business was completely disrupted, and they had major income losses in addition to the losses in our home.

My First Student Loan

I went to L.S.U. because Tulane closed, and I had to take out my first set of student loans. Everything so was incredibly uncertain at the time that my mom encouraged me to go take out loans.

My parents were busy dealing with the aftermath of the storm, and I had to figure the whole college/loans/new campus logistics out on my own. I don’t remember completing entrance counseling for my loans, although I know I did because they were subsidized federal loans.

I transferred schools again two years later to William and Mary. I never went back to Tulane, and I was still craving that small school atmosphere after two years at a large university that I never meant to go to in the first place.

In order to go to William and Mary as an out-of-state student, though, I had to come up with the cash. I received a generous grant due to our financial circumstances from the storm, my parents helped a little, and I took out the rest in federal loans. Again, I don’t remember doing entrance counseling.

Cat graduationIt wasn’t until I graduated that I learned how to check my credit score and find out how much I had taken out in loans in total. Luckily all my loans were federal loans and the majority was subsidized, which meant that I did not have to pay interest while I was in school.

You would think, though, that as someone who graduated early from one of the best colleges in the country (after transferring twice and experiencing a huge natural disaster) I would know how much money I took out. But I didn’t. Unfortunately, many other students and recent graduates are like me and unaware exactly how their student loans are structured and how repayment works.

Ultimately, I’m not upset that I took out student loans.

They were necessary in order to make my dreams come true. They were necessary to help me escape what had become a very sad situation in my home state. They were there for me when I needed to take one really expensive summer school class so that I could graduate a semester early. And, when I got a grant to do a fully paid for study abroad program, a student loan helped me buy plane tickets so I could see more of Europe while I was there. I don’t regret these decisions or experiences, but what I do regret is not understanding interest rates or the impact of student loans in general.

Learn From My Mistakes

If I had any advice to students going to college today and their parents, it would be as follows:

Step 1: Shop Around For Your Loan

Do not take the first loan that you’re offered. Please shop around. Just like any big investment, going to college deserves your full attention. If you have to fund it with loans, make sure you’re getting the best rates.

Private loans are historically worse for students because may of them require immediate payments, higher interest rates, more fees, and less flexible repayment terms.

Federal loans are the route most students take since those are the most widely accessible through colleges and universities. Although it seems like federal loans are the answer, don’t discount your local banks. If your parents have a good reputation with their local bank, they might be able to secure a lower interest rate than the federal government, but those instances are rare. It’s important to remember, though, that local banks will likely not be able to offer you deferred interest, so you will need to compare interest rates between these private loans and federal loans and weigh the pros and cons to find out the best plan of action for you.

In sum, shop around and know the difference between private and federal loans like the back of your hand. 

Step 2: Pay Attention to the Entrance Counseling

Entrance counseling is there for a reason. It’s typically automated with a quiz that you need to take online and pass to get your loans. The quiz asks questions to make sure you understand terms like deferment, repayment, interest accrual, and forbearance. Could it be better? Yes. Could it be more effective in helping students understand the risks? Yes. However, at a minimum it will explain the benefits and consequences of loans and what’s expected of you during your repayment. Remember, don’t complete entrance counseling until you fully understand everything about your loans. If you get to a section of entrance counseling that does not make sense, put in a call to your school’s financial aid office and ask them to explain the concept. If you don’t understand your interest rate, know your repayment period, or know what to do if you cannot make your payment in the future, ask your student loan counselor these questions.

Step 3: Take Out As Little As Possible

You might think that you’re going to college for engineering but most college students change their majors. In fact, the New York Times reported in 2012 that 80 percent of freshmen at Penn State were unsure about their major.

Maybe you’ll fall in love with acting even though you thought you wanted to go to medical school. Or, perhaps you’ll enjoy psychology and want to pursue being a social worker instead of becoming a business owner.

Either way, it’s important you only take out as much money as you need and work to subsidize other living costs of college, because you won’t know your ability to repay the loans until you start your career.

Just to give you an example, if you take out $26,000 in student loans, (which is about the national average for a four-year public university) at 6.8%, you would pay around $300.00 a month for 10 years to pay it off. You would also pay nearly $10,000 in interest! That $300 a month could be an incredible investment opportunity or a car payment. That $10,000 in interest could go towards a down payment on a house or a great emergency fund. So, before you take out anything extra, put your information in a loan calculator and find out how much money you’ll actually pay in the long run in interest charges. That should inspire you to take out as little as possible.

If all of this sounds daunting, don’t forget to regularly look for scholarships and find unique ones that apply to you. There are scholarships for just about everything whether you were a preemie as a baby or have German ancestry. To find unusual scholarships, click here.

Also, remember it’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable. College students are notorious for living on ramen noodles. Essentially, do whatever you can to take out the least amount of money possible. Your older self will thank you.

Step 4: Research Repayment Options

There are many careers that will offer you loan repayment assistance including teaching in underserved areas and joining the military. Make sure to take the time during your senior year to find places to work that will help you pay back you loans and know if they apply to private loans as well as federal. Sometimes you only have to sign a two or five-year contract to receive that benefit, and trust me, that seems like a long time but it will fly by.

Take Responsibility

Really, the most important takeaway is that you and only you can become educated about your student loans. The financial education system that is currently in place with respect to disseminating information to college students about the loan process is not as effective as it could be. Thus, it is up to you, the college student, to become an adult and start making adult decisions about your money.

Good luck. Remember, student loans can definitely help you follow your dreams like they did for me, but be wise about how much you take out.

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Pay Down My Debt

In Debt and Pregnant. Now What?

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I got pregnant when my husband and I were nearly $300,000 in debt.

Although it sounds crazy, I did it on purpose (both accumulating debt and getting pregnant that is.)

I wish I could say I had a super fancy Bentley parked in my driveway to have something to show for that high number, but really it’s all in our brains (which have lately been fried due to intense sleep deprivation.) To clarify, what I mean to say is all of our debt is student loan debt.

Sometimes people will say that education debt is “good debt,” and if that’s the case then we have really, really good debt. Our $300,000 student loan debt includes two master’s degrees – one for each of us – and three years of my husband’s medical school tuition. Unfortunately for us, we’ll probably be tacking on another $50,000 to it before he graduates from medical school in 2016, bringing the total number up to $350,000 and possibly even $400,000 since it’s actively accruing interest (fun right?)

Of course, my husband and I don’t actually believe that student loan debt is good debt. For most people, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy (although according to U.S. News, in rare cases it actually can.) So, that means most people will have to pay back every penny of their student loans even if they encounter significant hardships. Basically, not only is our $300,000 of student loan debt burdensome, it’s downright scary.

Yet, being in debt didn’t stop me from actively trying to get pregnant, and it shouldn’t stop you if you have the three traits below.

1. Financial Discipline

Even if you have significant debt, I believe it’s fine to make big life choices like buying a house or having a child as long as you have financial discipline. You need to be the type of person who is acutely aware of their debt, not someone who is too scared to look at the number. If you can face your debt head on and have the ability to stick to a detailed financial plan, you can definitely make room for some of life’s biggest changes liking bringing adorable, stinky babies into the world.

Financially disciplined people track spending, create budgets, understand their cash flow, and do not live paycheck to paycheck. Their student loan payments are just another line on their budget that they carefully pay attention to and try to tackle each and every month.

For some people, like Kirsten at Indebted Mom, biology plays a factor into the decision to have children as well. Although Kirsten has significant student loan debt like I do, she was not willing to risk the possibility of not being able to have children due to her age. “It would have been nice to pay off debt first, but if we’d waited to pay off all our student loans, I probably wouldn’t have been able to have children,” says Kirsten. In order to tackle her high student debt, Kirsten remains employed as an aerospace engineer and makes extra money on the side through online writing jobs.

2. Extreme Hustle

When my husband and I decided we wanted to start our family, we knew that we needed to create a large savings account for our baby. Between hospital costs, baby gear, and other necessities, we knew babies were expensive. Thinking of a worst case scenario where would have to reach our $4,000 out of pocket max for our health insurance policy, we decided to save $10,000, which would hopefully leave some money left over to start a college fund.

Of course, with my husband being a student, the only real way to create $10,000 out of thin air was for me to hustle. I was already bringing in extra money from online writing jobs, but I decided to double my efforts. I took on new clients, e-mailed people tirelessly asking if they had work, and spent many, many nights staying up until one or two o’clock in the morning doing extra work. Every time I got a PayPal deposit from one of my new clients, I moved it right over to my Smarty Pig high yield savings account for our future baby.

[You can see the latest high rate savings account deals here]

Of course, the joke was on us. I got pregnant just a few months later, and much to our surprise, we found out we were having twins. We used every penny of that $10,000 savings since both of our children spent time in the NICU. I was so glad I had that savings account; otherwise, we would probably be in credit card debt right now too.

Of course, if you are in debt, there is the obvious option to wait to have children or not have children at all. Many people, like Kali Hawlk of Common Sense Millennial, decided not to have children, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars in child rearing expenses over the course of two decades. This is certainly something to consider if you are in significant debt and are not equipped with the income or the tools to successfully handle paying off your debt and raising children at the same time.

Kali explains that, “If you can’t take care of yourself financially, you aren’t prepared to adequately provide what a child deserves,” and I agree with her. Children don’t need every toy or baby gadget on the Earth to be happy, but they do need basic necessities like food and a roof over their heads, monthly bills that can come into jeopardy if you are unable to make regular payments on your debt.

3. Ability to Handle Adversity

As anyone will tell you when he or she is dealing with large amounts of debt, there’s no such thing as a nice, linear payoff schedule. Life happens, things come up, and often you have to make hard decisions about just how much debt you want to pay off each and every month.

For us, the biggest shock of course was finding out we were having two babies, not one. To me, at 26 years old, I felt like I could handle one baby. I felt like my income, the funds I saved, and my general life experience meant I could be a good mother to one baby. However, the day I found out there were two, I spent an hour sobbing in the shower that night. Simply put, I was terrified. I was scared of everything like losing one or both of them since the pregnancy automatically became high risk. I was also worried how I was going to afford both of them with my husband still in school, and of course, I had tons of vain thoughts about how my small frame was going to carry two kids as long as possible throughout the pregnancy.

But, like all the other times in my life when I handled unexpected events, I pulled myself together and continued to work on a plan. I knew that if I could just work a little bit harder, not only could I be self-employed but I could also cut out the significant childcare expenses that two children bring by staying home with them myself.

That, of course, is exactly what I did. My boy/girl twins are 7 months old now, and I have been self-employed for almost a year. It hasn’t been without its difficult moments, that’s for sure, but because of hard work, financial discipline, and planning, we’re still on track to pay down our debt and ensure our children have everything they need to grow up happily and healthily.

You Have Nine Months to Prepare

If you are in debt and pregnant, there’s nothing stopping you from using this time to get your finances organized and develop a plan. The best thing you can do is, of course, reduce your expenses and raise your income. Trust me, I know it’s challenging to ask for a raise or take on extra work when you’re hugely pregnant, exhausted, and have to pee all the time. I’ve been there. But, your children are worth it. Their safety and security is worth it.

Essentially, if I can do it, you can do it. Take the steps now to work on developing the three qualities I mentioned above: discipline, hustle, and handling adversity. Luckily for you, children bring immense joy and happiness, and you’ll find having them is the best decision you’ve ever made – with or without your debt.

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